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Israel returns Fatah members to West Bank

Latest update : 2008-08-04

Israel has sent 75 pro-Fatah Palestinians to Beersheba in the West Bank, citing a request from the Palestinian president and the prime minister. They are associated with the powerful Helles clan in Gaza.

Israel sent 75 pro-Fatah Palestinians who fled the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip after clashes with the Islamist group to the West Bank on Monday after reversing a decision to return them to the coastal enclave.

An Israeli Prison Authority spokeswoman said the Palestinians were being driven on two buses from the southern Israeli city of Beersheba to the West Bank town of Jericho near the border with Jordan.

Israel estimated that 180 members of the Helles clan, one of the most powerful Gaza families associated with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah faction, sought refuge in Israel on Saturday after a fierce assault by Hamas on their Gaza City neighbourhood.

Israel sent dozens of them back to the Gaza Strip on Sunday, citing a request from Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

"Israeli authorities halted the process, however, as they received information that they were being arrested by Hamas and that their lives were in immediate danger," the Israeli army said in a statement.

Some of the Palestinians remain in an Israeli hospital. An exact count was not immediately available.

The tug-of-war over the Helles clan underscored lingering resentment within Fatah more than a year after Hamas routed Abbas's faction and violently seized control of the Gaza Strip.

Many Fatah leaders in the occupied West Bank still blame members of the Helles clan, one of the most heavily-armed in the Gaza Strip, for not resisting Hamas's takeover in June 2007.

The Israeli army initially said it had planned to transport members of the Helles clan to the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Abbas's government is based.

But Israel said later that they would be taken instead to Jericho, a desert oasis.

Hamas said it carried out the raid on the Helles compound on Saturday to detain men it accused of carrying out a July 25 bombing that killed five Hamas members and a girl.  Eleven Palestinians were killed and more than 90 were wounded during the raid in the fiercest fighting since Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007.

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said the Helles family was welcome to return to the Gaza Strip. "We assured them of their safety," he said.

But Abu Zuhri said the fact that family members fled to Israel "proved they had been involved in breaking the law."

Tensions between Hamas and Fatah, the two main Palestinian factions, surged after the July 25 bombing, which triggered tit-for-tat crackdowns in the Gaza Strip by Hamas and in the West Bank by Fatah.

Abbas's forces in the northern West Bank city of Jenin arrested 25 Hamas leaders on Monday, including 15 members of the Islamist group's local Shura leadership body.

Tensions also flared at Birzeit University near the West Bank city of Ramallah, where lectures were suspended after a clash between pro-Hamas and pro-Fatah student. Some students were lightly injured.

Date created : 2008-08-04

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